Theory of knowledge done and gone

Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.

I just turned in grades for my Theory of Knowledge course. It’s only the second time I’ve taught the course, and it’s been more than a decade since the first time. I didn’t do any of the same readings, so it might as well have been a new prep.

From my point of view, the course was a grab bag of issues about knowledge. I didn’t have a narrative arch that held it all together. However, one of my standard last-day discussion exercises is to have students break into groups and try to describe what the course was about. One stage of this is to have them state the essentials in one sentence.

Here was one answer: “We looked at what knowledge is and how that knowledge can be applicable to everyday life, including skepticism about knowledge, whether context matters when understanding knowledge, and the relationship between ethics and knowledge.”

Here is another: “The course is about if we can know some things, how we might come to know those things, and when we are justified in believing said things (including the testimony of others).”

And a third: “Theory of knowledge addresses the skeptical challenge of explaining how humans can know anything by offering accounts of how knowledge claims can be justified.”

As they were working out their sentence, I overheard a member of the third group comment, “Anything we say will be facile, so I think we can admit the inadequacies and go with what we have.” This struck me as being a fair summary of the course.

I structured the course around recent rather than historical literature. We read parts of Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice, and it was a big hit with students.

I feel like it would have helped to have an article that actually advocated for scepticism, but I’m not sure what the candidate would be. Without such a reading, it’s too easy to treat scepticism as a rhetorical bugbear. We can’t accept that (an author writes) because it would be tantamount to scepticism— but so what?

There were no topics or readings which students really hated. That’s good in one sense, but it doesn’t provide any guidance about what to drop. And I feel like it would make sense to swap some of the topics next time.

Only tenuously related to the post: The Salmon of Knowledge (Wikimedia Commons)

Blogs come and go

There’s also the general cultural shift from blogs to social media.

Jenny Saul

The pull quote is from the announcement that the Feminist Philosophers blog is shutting down. It had a good run, but it’s sad to see it go.

Imagine some kind of segue here.

My colleague Monika Piotrowska wrote a recent post for the Blog of the APA about the possibility of de-extinction. Last week I complimented her on the post, and she expressed surprise that I’d seen it. I still do the old-school thing of using an RSS reader to follow blogs that I care about.

Saul is right, though. Lots of things that would have been on a blog a decade ago are now Tweeted or Facebooked. This post could drift off into maudlin reflection, dismay at the state of culture, or references to Marshall McLuhan. But I’m not going to do it. 🙄

If you’re looking for an RSS reader, I highly recommend The Old Reader. It was founded after Google torpedoed GoogleReader, and the founders were programmers who just wanted something that had the same basic functionality. They subsidize it with a Premium option, but the free account will aggregate up to 100 blogs. I’m using only about two-thirds of that.

Nothing on my mind

I’ve been thinking more about nihilism.

Consider a schematic case in which your total evidence is E and you are trying to determine whether you should believe P, believe not-P, or suspend judgment. Uniqueness is the view that exactly one of these choices would be rational. Permissivism is the view that more than one of these choices would be rational. Nihilism is the view that none of these options is rational.1

That’s how I posed it in an earlier post, anyway. Then I stumbled across a forthcoming article by Elizabeth Jackson & Margaret Greta Turnbull. Nodding to Feldman, they define Uniqueness as “the thesis that there is at most one rational doxastic attitude toward a proposition.” In my terms, this is the disjunction of Uniqueness and Nihilism. Ugh.

Continue reading “Nothing on my mind”

Why evidentialism is tantamount to scepticism

Over on Facebook, Carl Sachs offers a send-up of evidentialist reasoning. In the comments, I boil the argument down to this:

  1. Only believe on the basis of univocally sufficient evidence.
  2. Evidence is never univocally sufficient.
  3. Therefore, don’t believe!

It’s valid, but are the premises true?

Continue reading “Why evidentialism is tantamount to scepticism”

Education by any other name would still be next to Humanities

When the UAlbany uptown campus was built, all the buildings were given functional names. The Philosophy department is in the Humanities building, on the podium next to Education and across from Business Administration.

Here’s the rub: The actual school of ed was moved downtown long ago and so doesn’t have anything to do with the Education building. The business school got a shiny new building several years ago, and so we’ve had to awkwardly distinguish the new business building from the old business building (which hasn’t actually housed any of the business classes).

Continue reading “Education by any other name would still be next to Humanities”

Rationality nihilism

I’ve been teaching epistemology this semester, and we’ve recently been talking about permissivism. The setup is this: Let E be the total evidence, and let P be some claim. One might believe P, believe not-P, or suspend judgement; call these doxastic attitudes towards P.

With that formalism in place, we can define Uniqueness: Given E, there is exactly one doxastic attitude that one may rationally adopt toward P.

In the article I’d assigned for class, Permissivism is defined as the negation of Uniqueness. The idea is that there are at least some situations in which, given E, one might rationally adopt different doxastic attitudes.1 For example, it might be rational to find the evidence convincing (and believe P) but also rational to be unconvinced (and suspend judgement).

Students found the readings less than clear, and I was trying to concisely formulate the opposition on the whiteboard. I stopped mid-sentence when I realized that I couldn’t just define Permissivism as the negation of Uniqueness. There’s a third possibility!

Call this Nihilism: Given E, there is no rationally permitted doxastic attitude that one may adopt.

I don’t know of an epistemologist who explicitly formulates Nihilism, nonetheless one who advocates it. I have a perverse impulse to write something arguing for it, just because it is a logically possible position, but that way lies madness.2

Picture: Some logic books.

Pedagogy and the early modern syllabus

Ruth Boeker’s syllabus for teaching early modern philosophy is featured today at the Blog of the APA.

Ruth was a visiting assistant professor here in Albany several years ago, and her current practice reflects things she did here. Our campus teaching center has been a big promoter of Team-Based Learning for many years. She first encoutnered it here and recommends, as further reading on TBL for anyone interested, a pair of articles written by our local experts. (One of whom is Philosophy PhD alum Kimberly Van Orman.)

So, yay! Cheers to all.

An intermediate case between agent and double agent

This is a post I wrote back in November but for some reason didn’t post. I had learned from a then-recent episode of Citation Needed about Juan Pujol, a Spaniard who served as a double agent in WW II.

The beginning of Pujol’s career as a spy vexes the usual connotation of “double agent.” He wanted to help the Allied cause, but the British repeatedly declined his offer. So he reached out to the Nazis and offered to help them, with no intention of doing so. Instead of going to the UK and reporting back to the Nazis, he went to Portugal and lied to the Nazis about what was going on in the UK. He made up a network of contacts and things that he had learned from them. He bodged together these reports based on reference books and magazines.

British intelligence became aware of these reports going to Berlin and tried to track down this mysterious agent. Pujol was finally able to convince them of his usefulness, and they brought him to London. There he worked to create a whole fictional network of spies who systematically misled Nazi intelligence about things in the lead up to D-Day.

Clearly Pujol was a double agent in the latter part of the story, but what kind of agent was he in the first part? It would be wrong to say flat-footedly that he was a Nazi agent, because he was deliberately sending them rubbish. But he wasn’t coordinating with the British, either. Because he wasn’t a British agent, he lacked the second agency required for being a double agent.


Constitutivism and the foundations of ethics

My colleague Ariel Zylberman has organized a one-day academic workshop here at UAlbany, coming up on March 15. The topic is constitutivism about moral norms— the view that norms are presumed by the very nature of action and agency.

The powerhouse list of speakers comprises Matthias Haase (Chicago), Michelle Kosch (Cornell), Sharon Street (NYU), and David Velleman (NYU). The official commenters will be Hille Paakkunainen (Syracuse), Francey Russell (Yale), Jason D’Cruz (UAlbany), and Paul Katsafanas (Boston University).

If it sounds like your kind of thing and you might be in the capital region in mid-March, more information and the registration form are at the workshop webpage. It’s a free workshop, but Ariel is asking that attendees register by March 1.

conference poster for constitutivism workshop